Home > Palace of Treason (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #2)(2)

Palace of Treason (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #2)(2)
Author: Jason Matthews

On her return to the Center from the West, there had been two clearance sessions with an oily little man from counterespionage and a saturnine female stenographer. He asked about the ubiytsa, the Spetsnaz assassin who had almost killed her in Athens, and then about being in CIA custody: what the CIA men had been like, what the Americans asked her, what she told them; Dominika had stared down the stenographer, who was swaddled in a yellow haze—deceit and avarice—and replied that she told them nothing. The bear sniffed at her shoes and nodded, apparently satisfied. But the bear was never satisfied, she thought. It never was.

Her exploits, and near escapes, and contact with the Americans cast suspicion on her—as it was with anyone returning from active service in the West—and she knew the liver-eyed lizards of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, were observing her, waiting for a ripple, watching for an email or postcard from abroad, or an inexplicable, cryptic telephone call from a Moscow suburb, or an observed contact with a foreigner. But there were no ripples. Dominika was normal in her patterns; there was nothing for them to see.

So they placed a handsome physical trainer to bump her during the “mandatory” self-defense course run in an old mansion in Domodedovo, on Varshavskaya Ulitsa off the MKAD ring road. The moldy, spavined house with creaky staircases and a green-streaked copper roof was nestled in an unkempt botanical garden hidden behind a wall with a crooked sign reading VILAR INSTITUTE OF OFFICINAL PLANTS. A few bored class participants—a florid Customs Service woman and two overage border guards—sat and smoked on benches along the walls of the glassed-in winter garden that served as the practice area.

Daniil, the trainer, was a tall, blond Great Russian, about thirty-five years old and imperially slim, with sturdy wrists and pianist’s hands. His features were delicate: Jawline, cheek, and brow were finely formed, and the impossibly long lashes above the sleepy blue eyes could stir the potted palm fronds in the winter garden from across the room. Dominika knew there was no such thing as a mandatory self-defense class in SVR, and that Daniil most likely was a ringer dispatched to casually ask questions and eventually elicit from an unwary Dominika that she had colluded with a foreign intelligence service, or passed state secrets, or seduced multiple debauched partners in hot upper berths of swaying midnight trains. It didn’t matter what transgressions they harvested. The counterintelligence hounds couldn’t define treason, but they’d know it when they saw it.

She certainly was not expecting to be taught anything along the lines of close-quarters fighting techniques. On the first day, with dappled sunlight coming through the grimy glass ceiling of the winter garden, Dominika was intrigued to see a pale-blue aura of artful thought and soul swirling around Daniil’s head and from the tips of his fingers. She was additionally surprised when Daniil began instructing her in Sistema Rukopashnogo Boya, the Russian hand-to-hand combat system, medieval, brutal, rooted in tenth-century Cossack tradition with mystical connections to the Orthodox Church. It was normally taught only to Russian military personnel.

She had seen the Spetsnaz assassin use the same moves in the blood-splattered Athens hotel room, not recognizing them for what they were, but horrified at their buttery efficiency. Daniil spared her nothing in training, and she found she enjoyed physically working her body again, remembering the long-ago discipline of her cherished dancing career, the career They had taken away from her. Sistema put a premium on flexibility, ballistic speed, and knowledge of vulnerable points on the human body. As Daniil demonstrated joint locks and submission holds, his face close to Dominika’s, he saw something in her fifty-fathom eyes he wouldn’t want to stir up unnecessarily.

After two weeks, Dominika was mastering strikes and throws that would have taken other students months to learn. She had initially covered her mouth and laughed at the bent-leg monkey walk used to close with an opponent in combat, and the swirling shoulder shrug that preceded a devastating hand strike. Now, she was knocking Daniil down on the mat as often as he dumped her. In the dusty afternoon light of the room, Dominika watched Daniil’s back muscles flex as he demonstrated a new technique and she idly wondered about him. The way he moved, he could have been a ballet dancer, or a gymnast. How had he gotten into the killing martial arts? Was he Spetsnaz, from a Vympel group? She had noticed, with the eye of a Sparrow—a trained seductress of the state—that his ring finger was significantly longer than his index finger. The likelihood existed therefore, according to the warty matrons at Sparrow School, of above-average-sized courting tackle.

Estimating the size of a man was not the only thing Dominika had learned at State School Four, Sparrow School, the secret sexpionage academy that trained women in the art of seduction. The classrooms and auditoria in the walled, peeling mansion in the pine forest outside the city of Kazan on the banks of the Volga were in her mind still. She could hear the droning clinical lectures on human sexuality and love. She could see the jumpy, roiling films of coitus and perversion. The lists of sexual techniques, numbered in the hundreds, endlessly memorized and practiced—No. 88, “Butterfly wings”; No. 42, “String of pearls”; No. 32, “The carpet tack”—would come back to her, uninvited thoughts of the numb days and evil nights, and everything sprinkled with rose water to cloak the musk of rampant male and lathered female, and the dirty-nailed hands squeezing her thighs, and the drops of sweat that hung from the fleshy noses that inevitably, unavoidably, would drip onto her face. She had endured it to spite the svini, the pigs, all of them, who thought she would lie on her back and open her legs. And she would now show them how wrong they were.

Calm down, she told herself. She was fighting the building stress of being back in Russia’s service, in the embrace of the Motherland, the start of an impossibly risky existence. There was additional anguish: She didn’t know whether the man she loved was still alive. And if he was still breathing, her love was a secret she would have to guard to her core, because there was the small detail that he was an American case officer of CIA. She waited for the overdue start of Daniil’s sly elicitation, plausible after the earned familiarity of fourteen days of physical training. She would have to be exceedingly careful—no baiting, no sarcasm—but it was also an opening for a well-timed bit of dezinformatsiya, deception, perhaps a sly hint about her admiration for President Putin. Everything she told Daniil would go back to the FSB, and then the Center, and be compiled with all the other pieces of the “welcome home” investigation, and ultimately determine whether she would retain her status as an operupolnomochenny, an operations officer. But my, those eyelashes.

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